Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Walking With Charles Dickens

Here's one of the best parts of living in England, as I've tried explaining to people who have always done so: It's a pretty small island, but it has a massive concentration of literature set in its "green and pleasant land" (name that hymn!). Or its busy, smoggy cities. English literature has always had a draw for me, but this year I've set myself the enjoyable task of only reading fiction that is set in this country. That's hardly limiting when one considers Jane Austen, George Eliot, Agatha Christie, James Herriot, Arthur Conan Doyle, J.K. Rowling, Arthur Ransome, C.S. Lewis, P.G. Wodehouse, Kate Morton, etc. etc. etc.

The few TV shows we watch tend to take place here as well. (Sherlock!)

Call me easily amused, but it does tend to thrill me when Diamond, from George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind, pulls his buggy up to the King's Cross taxi stand, and I remember standing in that very queue on a rainy afternoon. Or when Mr. Pickwick and friends visit the Pump Rooms in Bath, and I recognize our trip to the Fashion Museum in that same building. Or when Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman solve a mystery involving Underground stops where we've been swept along in a human tide.

Charles Dickens has grown in my affections this year, which is to say that he's come a long way since I slogged through Great Expectations in middle school. I re-read A Tale of Two Cities a few months ago and cried again. That lit the way toward David Copperfield, which Dickens justifiably claims as his favorite of all his books (and where Harry Potter fans may notice hints of inspiration). Loved it. After finishing The Pickwick Papers, I decided it was time to go on a Charles Dickens tour with London Walks. Care for a peek?

 At the Inns of Court, where several of Dickens' legal scenes are set

A scene from Martin Chuzzlewit takes place here, although much of the book is set in America. Dickens was not a fan of Americans at the time, since although he was very popular on his first book tour there,  he wasn't earning any royalties from American sales. Twenty five years later, he visited for the second time and felt that as a people, we had "matured." Yay us!

The Royal Courts of Justice. I can't remember any specific Dickens connection, but it's on the Strand, he would have passed this building all the time, and I just think it's a gorgeous building.

Dickens, who was quite the man about town, ate at this restaurant all the time, including with his much-younger paramour … and her chaperoning mother. That's not awkward, is it?! I do think the awning might have looked a bit different at the time. :-)

If you squint, you can see a round blue plaque, just above the street lamp. This building used to house a factory where Charles Dickens had to go to work while his father was in debtors' prison. He was eleven years old, and worked twelve hour days, six days a week. Can you imagine?? As a mother, I certainly can't.

By the way, the children stayed home for this one. I knew they wouldn't quite share my enthusiasm for spending two hours pounding the pavement in homage to an author they have yet to really connect with. But I'm glad I went anyway, for my own sake and theirs. As a mother, and especially a homeschooling mother, it's easy to find myself centered on their education and development. But sometimes I think one of the best gifts we can give our kids is inspiration. They need living proof that lifelong learning isn't a chore, or something that's limited to one's school days or years, but is a fire that can continue to burn when the requirements fall away.

I'd humbly submit that it's important to keep reading the classics. Keep taking classes -- there's so much available online, often for free, in addition to what you might find locally. Keep exploring around town, wherever curiosity leads. Our people need us, but we can't give very much from a dry well. Besides, it's just so much fun!


  1. I loved this. Charles Dickens has always (since Great Expectations in the 9th grade!) been one of my mostest favoritest authors of all time. (Even though I haven't been able to nurture that same affection in my kids!! They think him too depressing, no matter how much backstory/history I share with them nor how great my apologetic for him is!!) Thank you for sharing. You've inspired me today. I have become all business when it comes to school. I've lost the spark I had when they were all young and just beginning and so eager. And you've given me some insight into perhaps, at least one reason why. Thank you. I think I'll start A Tale of Two Cities this week! It is one I started long ago and never finished. Love to you, dear friend.

    1. Lisal, it's so great that you've been such a loyal Dickens fan! You would probably have been one of those thousands of mourners who lined up to pay their respects when he was (against his wishes) buried in Westminster Abbey. :-)
      I totally know you mean about the battle to maintain a level of delight amid the routine. I struggle with the same! Ultimately it comes down to the inescapable fact that the only person I can control is ME (on a good day!).
      Enjoy the book -- I'd love to know what you think! Lots of love to you.